The Romanian drama Child’s Pose – winner of the top prize at 2013’s Berlin Film Festival – has a juicy premise for a melodrama. 30-something Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) hits and instantly kills a 14-year-old boy while driving his car late at night, and in the aftermath, his neurotic single mother Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) – nicknamed “Controllia” early in the film by her ex-husband – stops at nothing to prove her son’s innocence.
At one point in history, this could easily have been made as a lurid Hollywood B-movie starring Shelley Winters. However, if you’ve seen any of the films from the recent so-called Romanian New Wave (Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days and Beyond The Hills being the most widely seen), you have a better idea of the brand of realism to expect; little in the way of theatrics or overt dramatic signifiers, handheld camerawork, an absence of non-diegetic music, and a general air of po-faced austerity, albeit one that’s often undercut with a degree of bone-dry comedy.
Cristi Puiu’s The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) was perhaps the breakthrough film for the Romanian New Wave, and also featured Gheorghiu in a major role, giving a master class in understated acting as a benevolent nurse helping a titular ailing man as he’s neglected over the course of a night in a busy Bucharest hospital. In Child’s Pose – which writer/director Călin Peter Netzer has crafted with an unforced mordant comic streak – she’s initially the exact opposite, and for a while holds our attention with a certain train-wreck fascination. Indeed, the film’s (awkwardly translated) title hints at both the central theme of composure, as well as Cornelia’s own figurative regression in her desperate attempt to retain it.
But the film challenges our initial impressions of her, and ends with a genuine, earned scene of catharsis that’s wrenching and morally ambiguous, in which neither party – each from either end of the class spectrum – emerges a victor. Visual negligibility keeps Child’s Pose short of being truly great cinema (inexplicable stretches of nausea-inducing, tripod-averse camerawork nullify the drama rather than ‘laying it bare’), but great drama that happens to be playing in a cinema ain’t a bad look either.
Child’s Pose is in cinemas from Thursday May 15.